In past decades better and more accurate weapons served as the generally accepted solution to increasing the effectiveness of an attack aircraft. More recently electro-optical (EO) targeting systems have made those weapons all the more lethal.
Demand for EO systems continues to grow, to the point where they have become the key component of many modernization programs. According to some defense industry estimates more than $5 billion of the $6.5 billion in expected near-term spending on upgrades of fighters and other combat aircraft will go to electronic modifications of this type. More than $3 billion of that sum will go to targeting systems.
Spending on 2,000 new targeting systems over the next 10 years will account for most of the $3 billion. Lockheed Martin’s Sniper targeting pod, Raytheon’s ATFLIR system and the Rafael/Northrop Grumman Litening pod will share much of the market.
The U.S. Air Force has praised LM’s Sniper pod after installing 10 of them on its Boeing F-15E fighters at its Lakenheath base in the UK. The Sniper pods ended up flying more than 450 missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).
“We have been able to maintain eight pods fully mission-capable throughout this whole deployment, and most of the time all ten,” said U.S. Air Force Aeronautical Systems Center Commander Lt. Gen. William Looney during a protocol visit to Lockheed Martin’s Sniper production site in Orlando. “They [the F-15E pilots] are so in love with that capability, they don’t want to go anywhere without a Sniper pod. There is no comparison between any other pod in the world and the capability that Sniper brings.”
Notwithstanding the F-15 pilots’ affinity for the pods, the worldwide F-16 fleet accounts for the Sniper’s biggest potential market. Norway and new F-16 customer Poland (the Polish air force will receive its first F-16s next year) have already selected the Sniper, and the USAF Advanced Targeting Pod Requirement program has ordered 522 pods for delivery by 2007.
The export market is where the question of which pod for which aircraft gets more complicated. Lockheed Martin has successfully integrated the Sniper onto the Boeing F/A-18, even though users of that platform already can choose from between either the ATFLIR or the Litening, and have bid on a contract for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). The RAAF finally selected the Litening, at least partly due to the fact that U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 units already use the pod. The Marines also fly older models of the F/A-18 than the ATFLIR-equipped F/A-18E/Fs used by U.S. Navy and, as one RAAF official said, “[the Marines’] aircraft look more like ours.”
More discussion has taken place about trying to add the Sniper or Litening to some non-U.S. platforms, such as the Swedish Saab JAS-39 Gripen. Aircraft other than frontline fighters have also flown with the pods.
During Operation Iraqi Freedom the Litening pod flew on a Boeing B-52 for the first-ever wartime deployment of a laser-guided bomb from that platform. Discussions continue about adding the Sniper to the configurations of the B-1 and A-10 in some scenarios.
Because of the high technology and sometimes unanticipated capability that comes with new EO systems, forces have begun using them in some non-targeting missions. Just as new-generation active electronically scanning array radars for fighters work as multifunctional arrays and not just as target designators, EO pods have shown usefulness in areas outside their originally intended purpose.
For example, U.S. and coalition units in Iraq, constantly harassed by improvised exploding devices (IED), have benefited from the pods’ usefulness in force protection. Equipped with the pods, fighter aircraft take off, particularly at night, to scan the terrain and locate groups of insurgents planting IED packages.
“Normally it’s [the Sniper pod] employed to put bombs on target,” said Marty Hutchinson, chief of the 542nd Precision Attack Squadron at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. “In theater now, it’s also being used as a nontraditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance [ISR] platform,” he explained. “The guys in the aircraft can use the infrared sensor technology and see the bad guys on the ground, at night, in all weather, and can use that tool to guide ground forces to these people.”
U.S. Marine Corps units in Iraq have flown the same type of force protection mission, only with the Litening pod on board the F/A-18. Both pods fly on ISR missions because of the increasing problem with IEDs and the lack of any technical solution anyone has managed to bring to bear.
The Lockheed Martin F/A-22 Raptor appears to have earned the title of odd man out in the exercise. The advanced infrared search and track system (AIRST) originally envisioned for the F/A-22 subsequently got canceled, but long before the letter “A” appeared in its designator. Now that the USAF is emphasizing its role as a strike platform, it seems likely that the F/A-22 will incorporate some derivative of the EO targeting package and forward-looking infrared systems destined for its little brother, the F-35 fighter.
Just as decades ago militaries decided they would have to equip every aircraft with radar, it now appears that some sort of a new-generation EO targeting system– be it a pod or a module internal to the airframe–will become part of any fighter aircraft, strike aircraft and conventional bomber’s configuration.